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6.46 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes: Like the Minister and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) I am pleased and proud to be part of the process of bringing the Bill very near to becoming legislation. I did not want to interrupt the Minister, but if he has time at the end of the debate, perhaps he will let us know when he anticipates orders will be laid to bring the Bill into force, provided that it gets through the other place and receives Royal Assent in November. That is a matter for the Government and I would encourage the Minister--and through him, the Home Secretary--to lay the orders so that the Bill comes into force this year, for reasons that I shall turn to in a moment.

As the Minister said, the Bill does two hugely important things. It has taken nearly 25 years for the original and very worthwhile race relations legislation, introduced by the then Labour Government, to be updated in this way. It takes the duty not to discriminate across the public sector and adds the duty that we discussed earlier to take proactive steps to promote good race relations and equality of opportunity and eliminate unlawful racial discrimination. Those are hugely important measures.

I share the Minister's view that it would be a model Bill for people who study politics. It had goodwill from the beginning although, unusually, it started in the House of Lords. There were good, robust debates. Many amendments were tabled--there were defeats and successes--and it was amended significantly in both Houses, resulting in a Bill that we are all much more satisfied with than we were at the beginning. Yet, as the Minister said, it has received almost no coverage in the parliamentary press or elsewhere.

Like others present in the Chamber, I am a London Member. I represent a constituency in south-east London. I trained there as a youth leader and have lived in south

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London since my student days. The Bill matters a lot to mixed-race communities such as ours which comprise all sorts of different backgrounds, cultures, faiths and traditions. It matters a lot that they can trust the public services and that the public services can trust them. If we are to have a society in which black and Asian people and people of different faiths, colours, creeds and backgrounds can become Members of Parliament, Cabinet Ministers, leaders of industry, head teachers of schools, chancellors of universities and Speakers of the House of Commons, we must start by inculcating and providing the proper public authority responsibilities that are in the Bill.

I will not dwell on the one or two disputes that remain between ourselves and the Government, but we hope that some of those will be taken up. A set of equality issues is still to be taken on, including religious equality issues about which some faiths understandably have strong feelings. There is more work to be done. I am not complacent, and I know that the Minister is not complacent. I wish to thank the Minister and his colleagues, particularly the team of civil servants which I know included somebody seconded from another Department to lead the team. I also pay tribute to colleagues, both here and at the other end of the building, who have worked hard.

Expressly, I want to pay tribute to Doreen and Neville Lawrence, who made their tragedy something that will leave a legacy that will probably be more valuable than they could ever have imagined. Those who have been privileged to meet them, and those of us who sat in the inquiry, know that the Bill is probably one of the most valuable things that that terrible trauma in Eltham can have produced--legislation to make our society a fairer and less discriminatory place.

I pay tribute to the inquiry, to Sir William Macpherson and to his assessors, who were there day after day and, in the end, were clear about what needed to be done. I pay tribute to the Commission for Racial Equality, which keeps us up to the mark all the time; I wish its new chief executive and director well. I thank people such as Richard Jarman and Barbara Cohen, who serve us well. I pay tribute also to a researcher of mine, Simon Hunt, who has now left for better-paid employment at the Greater London Authority. He did all the work on this Bill until, literally, a couple of weeks ago.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith)--who has just arrived--served with me on the Committee. He would have been with me today had travel been easier, and I thank him for his support.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman asked me about the commencement order. We must undertake consultation in relation to the immigration function. We are anxious to move on, but the consultation will need time. All I can say to him, in the words of Martin Luther King, is "How long? Not long."

Mr. Hughes: That is an assurance and I know of the Government's commitment to get this Bill on to the statute book.

In one of the idle moments that we occasionally have in this place, I checked some figures. We have had 43 Government Bills in this Session, 28 of which have so far been enacted. We have had 12 Home Office Bills;

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four have been enacted, one withdrawn and one defeated. There are six still to finish, including this one. In the end, this one may be as significant as any of the others. I hope that, either this year or very early next year, this Bill will become law. We can then start as we mean to go on in a much fairer Britain for people of all backgrounds. That would be a tribute to Stephen Lawrence.

6.53 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I join all colleagues in welcoming a momentous leap forward in protection from race discrimination. The Bill embodies the implementation of the Government's commitment in response to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry to extend the Race Relations Act 1976. I am particularly pleased because it underpins the right of all British citizens to receive not just equal treatment, but fairer access to services.

In a diverse society--particularly in constituencies such as mine--good race relations means protecting the civil liberties of all members of society. This is highlighted by the fluid nature of the situation regarding ethnic minorities, and by the term itself. After all, in Tower Hamlets we must consider that, in some areas, the ethnic minority is the white community. That shows clearly that it is in the interests of all British people, black and white, to ensure that we have robust legislation protecting us all from racial discrimination.

Having said that, my constituency clearly illustrates that black and Asian people suffer the greatest burden of direct and indirect discrimination. The most important provisions of the Bill are, first, to make it unlawful for public authorities to discriminate on grounds of race and, secondly, to impose a duty to promote equality on public authorities. Taken together, those measures represent a major breakthrough in anti-discrimination legislation on which the Government must be congratulated.

I particularly want to thank the Government for their acceptance that tackling indirect and institutional discrimination is critical if the Bill is to offer serious protection. There has been a controversial debate in Britain about the validity of this approach and about tackling institutional racism. People have asked where we will end up if we start here. They say that it may be a slippery slope. I hope that, if we start here, we will end up with a society where the colour of a person's skin does not determine his opportunity or treatment under the law.

That strikes a chord with me personally, as my family experience has been shaped by indirect discrimination. My father was arrested and imprisoned because, as a black student in the American south, he asked for equal treatment with his white peers. He was brought up in a place where the local authority and the Government routinely discriminated institutionally against black people. Recently, the judge who sentenced my father--now 98 years old--wrote to President Clinton saying that his judgment in my father's case had been coloured by race. How often do black people get an opportunity--after waiting 40 years, it has to be said--to see a judge put in writing to the head of state that his judgment was coloured by race? It does not happen very often. Forty years is a long time to wait for a Government to recognise the evils of institutional racism.

In this country, we have been waiting for just under a quarter of a century to strengthen the Race Relations Act 1976 and to achieve the racial equality that is the Act's

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central aim. The CRE carried out reviews of the 1976 Act in 1985 and 1992, but its recommendations were ignored by the then Conservative Government. I am pleased to hear how positively the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), spoke about the Bill.

In contrast, the Labour Government were quick to progress positive race relations as soon as we were elected. We did that in the first instance by setting up the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, which reported in February 1999. One of the key recommendations was that the

Following the inquiry, the Home Secretary promised to introduce legislation to bring authorities, including the police, within the scope of the Act. True to his word--as ever--here it is.

Having said how much I welcome the Bill, I wish to point out my concern about enforcement. How will the duty to promote equality be enforced? Could the Minister elaborate? Obviously, the CRE's role will be crucial in terms of guidance to organisations, issuing codes of practice, enforcing compliance and, if necessary, taking authorities to court. As the CRE has pointed out, compliance with the duty to promote equality can be audited by other means; for example, by Ofsted or by Her Majesty's inspectorates of schools and of prisons. What types of audit does the Minister envisage? Will they take place annually?

My other concern is about religious discrimination. I was reminded of this by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy). He has had to leave because of an important constituency meeting, but he is naturally concerned about this debate as he is approximately the same age as Stephen Lawrence would be, were he still alive. Under the 1976 Act, Sikhs and Jews are protected, but Muslims are not. Although that has been the result of case law and interpretation rather than a specific provision in the Act, it has given offence to many Muslims and to anyone who cannot accept religious discrimination. I commend the work of Lord Ahmed on the subject, and the extra protection that the Human Rights Act, which took effect on 2 October, offers. Will the Minister tell us whether further legislation on religious discrimination is being considered?

I hope that the Minister will consider the seriousness of the discrimination that British Muslims suffer. I know that he is aware of that, and that it is difficult to untangle--

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